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Italian island out of room to quarantine arriving migrants

Last Updated Aug 1, 2020 at 7:02 am PDT

ROME — Several small boats filled with more Tunisian migrants have reached a tiny Italian island that has run out of room to quarantine them as required by Italy’s anti-coronavirus measures, local officials said Saturday.

Sicilian daily newspaper Giornale di Sicilia quoted Lampedusa Mayor Toto’ Martello as saying the island can’t wait until the government sends a chartered ferry where the migrants can be held for 14 days to fulfil the country’s quarantine requirement.

The island’s migrant holding centre was built for a maximum capacity of 95 people and was already holding 950 when the latest passengers arrived, Martello said. The 250 who arrived between Friday night and Saturday must stay on the dock for now, until the promised ferry arrives or some other solution is found.

Seven boats directly reached Lampedusa’s shores, while an eighth boat needed assistance as it approached the island,after setting off from Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast.

The mayor said a total of 250 boats carrying 5,000 migrants in all have reached the island in a month. Many of the passengers were transferred to migrant residences on Sicily on commercial ferries or other vessels.

“I don’t understand why the premier doesn’t declare a state of emergency” on Lampedusa, Martello told the newspaper.

Arriving migrants were linked to several dozen recent coronavirus clusters. Concern is growing among health authorities that Italy’s number of new confirmed cases, which had been largely contained by June, could again start surging out of control.

Unless they come from countries specifically exempted from mandatory precautionary, such as most European Union countries and some others, foreigners must do 14 days quarantine upon entering Italy.

Tunisian migrants fleeing their country’s worsening economic situation aren’t generally considered eligible for asylum. Italy has a repatriation deal with Tunisia for weekly flights to send back those who fail to obtain permission to stay. The flights were suspended during the brunt of the virus epidemic in Italy but resumed July 16.

Still, Tunisians keep coming, in small fishing boats sturdy enough to reach Lampedusa’s shores, on occasion sailing into coves or docking near beaches where vacationers are swimming on the tourism-dependent island.

Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese told the daily Corriere della Sera newspaper that Italy is trying to arrange with the Tunisian government the possibility of using boats to increase the number of weekly repatriations.

Asked about fears that migrants might trigger more virus clusters in Italy when they are transferred to holding centres on the mainland, Lamorgese replied: “The local communities are rightly sensitive to the subject of health safety.”

Frances D’Emilio, The Associated Press